Dole Faces a Fight for Dixie

To make gains, GOP hopeful must tell life story - and come often

In the past two weeks, Bob Dole has led rallies in Georgia, taken a riverboat cruise in Louisville, Ky., and eaten in country restaurants from South Carolina to Alabama.

Mr. Dole's sudden affinity for states below the Mason-Dixon line is propitious: He needs to win the South to win the White House. But recent polls show him trailing or in a tight race with President Clinton in key Southern states - Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida.

"Dole has to assume the South, and if he cannot assume it he may as well just go on a long vacation because the election's over," says Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The South, which has tilted toward Republicans over the past two decades, is important because it claims a large share of the electoral vote: Twelve Southern states have 155 electoral votes, more than half the 270 needed to win the presidency. When Mr. Clinton captured the Oval Office in 1992, he carried a fair share of Dixie - Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Georgia. Those states appear to be in his corner now, but several of them need to shift to the Dole camp, GOP analysts say.

"If the South is a battlefield, that's bad news for the Republicans ... because it really means they will have to fight for their base," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "And I think that's the situation we have at the moment."

Bolstering the opportunities for Democrats in the South is the way Clinton has positioned himself.

"Most of the Southern states are ones where, if the Democratic nominee runs as someone who mixes it up ideologically - is liberal on some things and conservative on others, which is what Clinton is doing at the moment - that makes the Democrats competitive," Mr. Black says. "Then it really depends on whether the Republicans have a strong candidate who can deliver a strong message."

Convincing voters he's a strong candidate - and overcoming the image he has trouble exciting his own party - are Dole's tasks. One way to boost his standing is to get his story out, many say.

Right now most Southerners have heard of Bob Dole, but many still don't know about his background, particularly that he was wounded in World War II, says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Atlanta. "Once Dole's full story is told, voters will find it very attractive," he predicts.

Dole must also counter Democrats' charges that Republicans threaten programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. He'll also make mention of Whitewater, a tactic that may not get the desired effect.

"Clinton's personal foibles ... have been in the headlines ever since he's been inaugurated ... and he still has been gaining [in voter support]," says Hastings Wyman, publisher of Southern Political Report. "So they can trash Clinton up and down the South, but I think they're going to be preaching to the choir. Most voters don't care enough about it [Whitewater] to determine their vote."

Several states may shape up to be battlegrounds, especially Florida, where the issues of Medicaid and Social Security are important to voters. What may help Dole in the Sunshine State is the growing number of residents who are registering as Independents. Those voters, analysts say, tend to vote Republican.

In several Southern states, polls have shown Dole trailing Clinton by as few as 2 points in Virginia and by as many as 12 points in Arkansas. A Time/CNN poll released June 14 put Dole within 6 points of Clinton nationally, an improvement over the 16-point spread reported last month.

Still, preliminary polls mean little, and much can change in a few months, experts warn.

"We're coming off a period where Bill Clinton had no opposition in his primary battle, and Bob Dole had to fight with a number of competitors for his nomination, so he is a little more bloodied now than he would have been had he no primary opposition," Mr. Ayres says.

"Also the unions have just come off a $30-million- plus advertising campaign bashing Dole and the Republicans, so that's bound to drive your numbers down somewhat," he says.

Dole should also get support from white Southern voters, especially white males, political analysts say.

"They feel like he [Clinton] betrayed them, like he ran as a moderate Democrat and governed as a liberal Democrat," Ayres says. "That negative feeling is deep and intense and visceral, and it's an underlying dynamic of this campaign that hasn't fully borne fruit, but it will before November."

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